Feeling Trapped: Can HR Leaders Take On a Toxic Culture?

Feeling Trapped: Can HR Leaders Take On a Toxic Culture?

Culture is having a moment in the sun. In our analysis of earnings calls, Gartner discovered that culture was the most frequently discussed talent issue in 2017, while mentions of the word increased 12 percent from the previous year. When we discuss culture change with HR leaders, their objective is usually to align the culture to changing business models or strategies, in order to accelerate and improve the outcomes of those transformations. A culture challenge is often phrased as: “We need to be more innovative,” or “we’re not as inclusive as we could be.”

But recent events have prompted another set of conversations on what to do when you find yourself in a culture that requires not just an adjustment, but a true overhaul. Many companies have recently faced public scrutiny for possessing workplace environments deemed “toxic”—in terms of enabling sexual harassment, bullying, discrimination, or other forms of unethical conduct. Over the past two years, we’ve seen several high-profile organizations undergo significant organizational restructuring to address this issue. In the #MeToo era, as the corporate world engages in a long-overdue reckoning with sexism and sexual harassment, more of these toxic workplace cultures are sure to be uncovered.

When we talk about a “toxic” culture here, we mean something more than just a low-performing culture demonstrated by low employee engagement, siloed workstreams, or high turnover. Those issues are worth addressing, but cultural toxicity is higher stakes. Toxic cultures engender malevolent harassment or corrupt business practices, protect the perpetrators of these toxic behaviors, and create an unsafe environment for employees, permeated with fear and anxiety. While the symptoms may vary, toxic cultures can directly and acutely damage a business’ reputation, profits, and employer brand, while doing real harm to employees and their careers along the way.

Many HR leaders have walked into a new position, only to find themselves in a deeply toxic culture, and wondered what’s next. Of course, since the door is right there, many of these leaders give feedback with their feet, understandably unwilling to fight a force as large and as nebulous as culture. On the other hand, fixing a toxic culture is one of most powerful and positive legacies an HR leader can achieve, in terms of both employee welfare and the health of the organization.

Before leaving a culturally toxic organization behind, HR leaders should determine whether there is an opportunity to partner with relevant stakeholders and address this problem. Here are some steps you, as an HR leader, can consider:

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Assuming Good Intent Can Have Bad Effects

Assuming Good Intent Can Have Bad Effects

We know that maintaining civility in the workplace is important for employee engagement and productivity, and that many employees won’t abide feeling disrespected at work. In an effort to foster a civil atmosphere, some organizations include in their codes of conduct a rule that employees “assume good intent” on the part of their colleagues in any interpersonal conflicts, but Annalee Flower Horne, co-editor of the Bias, argues that these rules actually undermine diversity and inclusion by making victims of uncivil behavior into perpetrators:

The harm is that telling people to “assume good intent” is a sign that if they come to you with a concern, you will minimize their feelings, police their reactions, and question their perceptions. It tells marginalized people that you don’t see codes of conduct as tools to address systemic discrimination, but as tools to manage personal conflicts without taking power differences into account. Telling people to “assume good intent” sends a message about whose feelings you plan to center when an issue arises in your community.

To illustrate her point, Horne uses the classic example of an employee who has her foot stepped on by her co-worker as an analogy for the microaggressions women and minorities experience regularly in white- and male-dominated workplaces. In Horne’s example, “Alicia” has her foot stepped on by “Fred” and reacts by cursing at him. Fred goes to their manager and complains that because he didn’t mean to step on her foot, Alicia violated the code of conduct in not assuming good intent on his part and owes him an apology.

A code of conduct that treats Fred’s actions and Alicia’s as equally transgressive, or even holds Alicia to be more at fault, is badly misguided, Horne argues:

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